January 9, 2014

Biblical pillars for mercy ministry [reprise]

by Jesse Johnson

Back in 2011 John Piper gave challenged his readers to support their understanding of ministering to the unbelieving poor with “strong pillars” of theological argument. People are lost and on their way to hell, and many of them are suffering in this life as well. It has always struck me as particularly meaningless and eternally inconsequential when churches use their resources to do that which God has not called us to do. The poor, as Piper said, deserve better than bad arguments with bad theological foundations.

Yesterday I made the case that the Bible does not command churches to use their resources to lower the poverty rate, and I quibbled with Tim Keller’s statement that Christians owe the poor as much as we can possibly give them. But Keller’s views on mercy ministry are really so extreme, that it is easy to be accused of arguing with a straw man (plus I want to take this to heart) so I want to explain what I see as a biblical view of mercy ministry.

Our response to the poor should be influenced by Scripture. The compassion of God is perhaps his most incredible communicable attribute, and is certainly His most discussed attribute in Scripture. Understanding this should guide any discussion about showing compassion to the poor. To use Piper’s metaphor, if our theology is going to be the pillars of our argument, then God’s compassion is the foundation. From that foundation are these pillars:

1. Understanding some of the differences between the church and Israel is essential to understanding how to care for the poor, and how to rightly apply God’s commands. While Israel was to stay in the promised land and transform her society (there were no food pack campaigns to Assyrians), the church is supposed to scatter around the world and proclaim the gospel, while transforming society inside of the church—not outside. This is seen in missions (Israel stayed, the church goes), as well as in mercy ministry (compare Ruth to the widows in 1 Tim 5).

2. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of compassion, yet he never fed the poor or “combated poverty.” He told John the Baptist that the poor “had the good news preached to them,” and then he sent his followers out to do the same. This explains why the NT commands Christians to meet the needs of those inside the universal church, but not outside (for my understandinging of the “Good Samaritan,” read this).

3. Simply put, the mission of the church is evangelism. All four gospels end with some variation of this command, and it is explicitly repeated throughout the NT.

4. That said, there is a huge difference between what local churches are called to do corporately and what we as Christians are called to do individually. Confusing these two leads to bad ecclesiology and a Shane-Claiborne like mentality about the gospel. Personal ethics should not be confused with corporate mandates.

5. The American church has fallen prey to what Marvin Olasky calls the tragedy of American Compassion. While God’s love calls us to radically change our lives, American Christians (often in the name of love) think the most loving thing to do for the homeless is to give him food, thereby enabling poverty and violating 2 Thess 3:10. Why would we want to love others in a way God does not love us?

6. The debate about mercy ministry is really a debate about eschatology and ecclesiology. If you believe the church ushers in the kingdom of God, and that there is no hunger in the kingdom, and that you are joined to the church/kingdom through infant baptism, then you should be out there getting rid of any social injustice that has crept inside your God’s kingdom. This is why it is so frustrating to see premils falling for the plastic version of justice offered by community organizers.

7. Materialism is the enemy of not only our own souls, but of missions. If you close your heart to the poor to build a bigger barn for yourself, you are recklessly deceived about the condition of your relationship with God. Beyond that, every dollar wasted in luxury, on food for those who don’t work, or in trying to undo the “psychological and emotional effects of the fall” (Keller’s words), is a dollar that is not being sent forward to heaven.

8. With all of that said, it is a Christian duty on both a corporate and individual level to make sure that there are no unmet physical needs in the church. There should not be Christians who are starving in any part of the world. It was Paul’s mission to minister tot he poor saints in Jerusalem, and that same mission extends to us today.

The foundation is God’s compassion. The pillars are: discontinuity, the compassion of Jesus, the Great Commission, a right understanding of the corporate church, a biblical concept of love, the hope in a future kingdom, and the danger of materialism’s attack on missions.

The goal of all of this is to provoke you to understand God’s love for the lost more deeply, and to see how God’s compassion is the foundation for right thinking about poverty in the world.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • If the mission of the church is evangelism, here’s my question: is this mission compromised in the materialistic displays we set for the fallen world? The stories about Steven Furtick and his $1.7 million dollar mansion come to mind as an extreme example, but it can be just as much manifest by luxury sportscars and expensive clothing of believers on their way to church (yet my observation is that materialism, like head-coverings of I Cor.11, seem to be one of those hastily-dodged taboo topics from the pulpit… Like the ichthys on the back of a Hummer, there seems to be a dichotomy in the testimony on display of who the real god is.)

    For me, reading Richard Foster on this years ago (yeah, his theology can be wonky in places, I know) his teachings on the disciplines of simplicity caused me to wonder if material excess is a barrier to reflecting a genuine, Christ-transformed testimony to the fallen world. I could be wrong, but when I climb back into non-believer mode and look at the Osteenian lifestyle embraced by quite a good number of genuine evangelicals I know, it gives me pause.

    • Good question Johnny. I think careful distinctions should be made–The Bible condemns the love of money but not the possession of it. Also, there is the stewardship principle that people often to be good stewards of their money need to invest it to grow it. A person who, say, renovates their house increases the value of their house. It would be short sighted to say, “Christians shouldn’t renovate their house” if by spending 300k on their house they increased the value of it from 300k to 1 mil. That is being a good steward, not a selfish jerk, and ultimately gives them more to give away. Ditto with a lawyer or financial advisor who buys an expensive suit–the return value on it increases their worth,and it would be short sighted to say, “Godly people shouldn’t wear suits like that” when the result it that he is able to give more away w/ the suit than without.

      Ultimately, everyone stands before the Lord to be rewarded for how they lived their lives and used their money. We don’t know the hearts of other people, and it is very unwise to divine Philemon’s godliness by the size of his house or the number of slaves he has, rather than on the fact he is leveraging his resources to advance the gospel.

  • Linda

    Thank you for these posts clarifying questions on this topic. In a similar vein, all of my life I’ve heard that ministering to prisoners is part of our Christian obligation, and that based upon Matthew 25:36. Due to a family situation a couple of years ago, suddenly, the application of this verse became important to know. Aside from loving a rebellious person as best one can from afar, what did God want me to do regarding visiting that person in prison?

    It seems to me that, studied in context, doing good deeds like prison visitation is not the point of Matthew 25. And as I did a survey of the Bible’s comments on prisoners, my conclusion is that the duty of visiting prisoners refers to our brothers and sisters in Christ imprisoned for the gospel, not the visiting of any criminal. The Bible doesn’t give a blanket mandate to visit prisoners.

    It isn’t that prison ministry is wrong to do; everyone needs to hear the gospel. It is that, as I understand it, visiting imprisoned unbelieving criminals is not the Christian’s obligation. Visiting is not wrong to do, especially if it is possible to demonstrate love to a family member, but neither is refraining from visiting necessarily sinful. In fact, prudence or even love may require refraining.

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  • Thanks for taking the time to think through these points.

    I think the corporate/individual command distinctions are helpful.

    I think it may be a mistake to say that feeding hungry people is a violation of 2 Thess. He was talking about life in a community of believers, not all people, everywhere, at all times. Be careful not to go farther than Scripture.

    When Jesus was speaking of “the least of these” did he only mean believers? I think that is a hard case to make.

    I am sorry to be harsh, but I think you should take pause at how freely you condemn this form of generosity.

    • Thanks Sean.

      I do think that when Jesus said “the least of these” he meant believers. It is in the context of entering the kingdom of heaven with child-like faith, church discipline, and protecting these “children” in the faith. So yeah, that’s pretty much a slam-dunk.

      I don’t mean to come across as condemning generosity. But at the same time, me telling you that you “owe poor people as much as you can give them” is not generosity. Its not generosity when I tell you how you should spend your money.

      • Huh? Are you looking at Matthew 25?

        It’s right after the parable of the virgins, and the parable of the talents, so that’s the context.

        Please read it again and reconsider –

        “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, jthen he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him kwill be gathered lall the nations, and mhe will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates nthe sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then othe King will say topthose on his right, ‘Come, you qwho are blessed by my Father, rinheritsthe kingdom tprepared for you ufrom the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you wgave me drink, xI was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 vI was naked and you clothed me, yI was sick and you zvisited me, aI was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 Andbthe King will answer them, c‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these dmy brothers,6 you did it to me.’

        • You could go out on a limb and argue he is still talking about believers, but the “stranger” part seems to undercut that idea.

          • There is a consistint NT theme with “stranger” and it even connects to hopitality as an edler qualification. The short version is that the term “stranger” in the NT relates to missionaries that are going church to church, unknown personally to thier current congregation. See for example Heb 13:2 (cf 11:13), or esp. Rom 12:13, which says, “Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.” Notice the connection with the concept of hospitality being linked from angels to strangers to saints. 1 Peter 4:9 uses the same form of hopitality and applies it “to one another.” Finally, and I dare say most convincingly, that hopitality concept is given as A CONDITION for receiving material aide from the church in 1 Tim 5, where Paul says that they should only give aid to a widow if she “has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.

            So my summary of Mat 25 is Jesus ties it to caring for him personally. Disciples as “when did we care for you.” Jesus says when you cared for the least part of his body–namely any of his brothers and sisters–you cared for him. The NT fleshes that out by saying that a basic mark of godliness is caring for missionaries and demonstrating hospitality seen to “strangers” and in parallel “angels”/”one another”/”saints” and all of it with a connection of caring for the body of Christ to advance the gospel.

            I dont’ think its a minor point, but I also don’t think I’m having to work too hard to get it to fit in my system. You’ll have to take my word for it, but this is one of those cases where my system really did flow out of my study of the passages, not the other way around.

            I do appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I hope I don’t come across as overly defensive. Thanks.

        • Sorry–my bad. I thought you were referencing Mark 9/10. In Matthew 25 though Jesus does say “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” I don’t think its going out on a limb to say that “brothers” is talking about believers. Thanks for your gracious interaction here though.

          • I think if you dig a little deeper, you will see that this is a poor translation. That is the NIV you are quoting,

            The ESV does a better job presenting it as an aside.

            If you read the next part, you can see Jesus specifically left out, so it seems strange to parallel the entire previous passage, and chastise the second group with the same specific language, but leave out the “,my brothers,” part unless that is an address to the first group. doesn’t this explanation fit a lot better?

            Seems like you are forcing yours to fit your idea. This may seem minor to you, but if you are wrong it’s a pretty big deal.

            I hope you are giving these arguments the respect and attention I am giving yours, your brevity and flippancy don’t make me think that you are.

            41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

          • Sean, I don’t mean to come across as flippant–and after over 10 posts on this topic I can’t be accused of brevity!

            My quotation was from the Holman translation, although the ESV goes with “my brothers” and footnotes “brothers and sisters” while the NAS uses “brothers of Mine.” The verse is Matthew 25:40. In verse 45, the word “brothers” is replaced with the phrase “least of these.” That is what I was referencing above from Mark 9/10. The greek for “my brothers, btw, is ton adelphon mou, or “brothers of mine,” which really works with all the translations.

            Sean–if you’d like a longer paper I wrote on this topic, email me and I’ll hook you up. jarbitro at gmail. I do apologize again for my first comment–I’m preaching through Mark right now, so when you brought up the phrase “least of these” I heard it through my Markan lens. My bad.

  • Michael
  • george canady

    If a missionary comes home on furlough, do you think he would be more encouraged to stay at someone’s lake house or stay with someone living small who could afford a lake house?

    • 072591

      Simple. The lake house.

      That missionary is probably not coming home alone, and even if he is, furlough is a process, taking months or even years. He would definitely be more able to carry on his duties, and yes, relax more comfortably, in a lake house than in a small home with a family that has its own routines that the missionary would be disrupting by his very presence.

      This is a good example of using wealth for our brethren’s good.

  • george canady

    ” encouraged” in the sense of skin in the game. Maybe like the missionary see a daily sacrifice of someone such as himself who could do something else with time and money but gives more and lives small. Maybe even show his family a living word picture of an American living the eternal dream instead of the “American Dream”.

  • tovlogos

    Yes, Jesse — we are driven to be within the context of conformity to the image of Jesus. It is simpler than it may appear. Yet it seems enormously complicated without the proper guidance of the Spirit. You in no way contradict James 2:15,16 — which would be otherwise pharisaic. Actually I have had a similar mindset when I saw evangelicals running behind political candidates, neither of whom even believe in God; and heard numerous rationales for voting for, “the least of the available evils;” something I couldn’t picture the apostles doing with the Lord’s approval.
    I would be inclined to feed a homeless man; but I would be amiss if I did not hand him some information about his real hunger.

    • Yeah, and I agree that Christians should be marked by compassion. Thanks for your comment.

      • tovlogos

        Thanks Jesse,

        Mark Mathias

    • 4Commencefiring4

      Evangelism will always trump other concerns, but it doesn’t always PRECEDE them. We’ve probably all known christians who, believing they are being obedient to the call, leave a tract for a tip in a restaurant–and only a tract. That’s a great method of pushing that person out of any interest in the Gospel.

  • David Anderson

    EXCELLENT post. Great clarity on the importance for understanding the discontinuity of there OT and NT. Very helpful post. Thank you.

  • I’m thinking about how you combine points #3 & 4. You say that the church is commanded in the gospels to evangelize, but this is different than individual mandates. But I don’t see Jesus commands at the end of those Gospels as given to the church. For the most part, there are very few “commands” given to the church as an organization.

    I do think the NT (besides many OT passages) is clear that we are to give to the poor. That sure looks like what II Corinthians 8 is talking about. Or do you think the church is only supposed to help poor Christians? The danger there is that some would see “Christianity” as a way out of poverty, as my friend who is a missionary is experiencing (http://osbornmission.com/2013/12/30/motivation/).

    But perhaps the issue is in your 5th point. As someone who is working to both proclaim the gospel & relieve suffering/injustice/poverty, I say the last thing the church needs to do is just give out resources (and like a previous commenter, I think 2 Thess 3:10 is in the context of the church). But I’ve also seen that preaching the gospel, combined with “looking after orphans and widows in distress” (and other forms of alleviating poverty), not only follows a Biblical call, but it also earns credibility with many in this culture. By using resources to address these issues, many more people become open to hearing the gospel. (At least, that’s the experience I’ve had.)

    • Great comment Joey. I do think that 2 Cor 8 is about an offering for believers, because elsewhere Paul describes that offering as “for the saints in Jerusalem,” and also in 2 Cor 8 itself he says that their faithfulness in giving will be “proof before the churches of your love and our boasting about you to these men.” Then in 2 Cor 9 he says the result of the gift will be the grace abounding by producing thanksgiving to God by “supplying the needs of the saints.” So Paul spells out clearly that is an offering for the “saints.”

      I agree that evangelism is an individual mandate. What falls to the church is to equip believers to go into the world for that purpose. Hence the pastoral significance of the great commission, the church’s oversight of missionaries, and the whole point of pastors to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.

      Thanks again for you thoughtful comment.

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  • 4Commencefiring4

    Wow. I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll just pick what jumped out the most:

    Jesus never fed the poor? Well, while the text never gives us the average economic status among the thousands He fed–twice–with bread and fish, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that most of them were not exactly on easy street. After all, apparently none had any food of his own, and presumably someone of means would have been able to not only bring provisions, but probably plenty for a few others as well. If five loaves and two fish were as much as thousands of people had, read the tea leaves: they were broke. Probably most people in ancient times were scraping by. When someone was rich, it was usually something we learn from the text: the rich man who questioned Jesus about eternal life, Joseph of Aremethia, etc. I’m not a betting man, but it seems to me the people of Jesus’ day were living hand to mouth in just about all cases. One certainly doesn’t get the impression reading the Gospels that the crowds He ministered to were popping grapes into their mouths and rolling gold coins across their fingers as they asked Him questions.

    I believe your notion that one’s eschatology somehow informs his compassion is bizarre. What may or may not happen with regard to the Second Coming has nothing to do with a decision to provide a meal for someone hungry or a shelter for them so as to not freeze in winter. I cannot connect those dots at all.

    I’m afraid you’re giving the impression–at least to me–that you think the church should stay safely inside where it’s warm, debating whether or not the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a parable, while the destitute and starving outside are just going to have to figure out how to survive.

    If so, that’s not any Gospel I’m familiar with.

    • Daniel Leake

      Hello commencefiring,
      If you’re going to attempt a proof of Jesse’s unreasonable claims, you’d need to provide evidence. There is no evidence that those people at the multiple food distributions of Christ were poor. At best you can’t argue either way and it should be avoided as an argument.

      Eschatology does not begin with one’s view of the end times. While Eschaton means “Last things”, how you view the last things entirely depends on your view of the rest of Scripture going back to Genesis 3:15. Jesse’s point is that the law (spelled out in the Torah) has many commands about how to treat the poor or strangers from foreign lands. More importantly the law is given to a theocracy in which the corporate institution itself is told how to dispense this care. However, we are not Israel and a dispensationalist realized that the law of Moses is entirely void (while a covenantalist does not agree with this distinction). If you view Israel and the church as distinct entities (as Jesse and I do), then you must take your cues regarding the mission of the church entirely from the New Testament. That was his point about eschatology.

      If you’re not familiar with the gospel Jesse advocates (in general), then I’m sure we would all like to see where you derive the “Gospel” that you hold to so that we can rightly understand the meaning of particular Bible passages and clarify misunderstanding. I mean that with all sincerity.

      Finally, To accuse Jesse or anyone of advocating we just debate theology and not do anything is juvenile to say the least. One of the biggest frustrations of internet comment sections is just such an argument. To discuss one point within a context of an argument is not to ignore all other aspects. If I were to argue (in one blog article) it is good to teach the fear of God to a child would you tell me I was immoral for not arguing we need to teach the compassion and mercy of God? That would be frustrating and silly, since one blog article is very short and narrow in scope. Try to make critiques that help the discussion and don’t distract.

      Hope that helps,

    • Well, I did try and make it clear that the main mission the church has is going into all the world with the gospel. So if you came away thinking my point was “stay inside” then I’m disappointed.

      The point about eschatology is simply this: is it the church’s job to usher in the kingdom by fighting poverty? Postmil: Yes. Premil: no.

      Jesus ministered to the poor, yes. And 2xs he fed those who came to the wilderness to hear him. Once it was Jews, and once Gentiles. In fairness though, 2 points: 1) That is obviously not repeatable, and it would be strange to take that as our model of what to do. 2). The next day when the same crew from the first feeding showed up for more food, JESUS REBUKED THEM! He said, “all you want is food” and he refused to give them more, and they went away. In fact, he told them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, but don’t expect more miraculous feedings. I hope that is the gospel you are familiar with.